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Larger than life: four centuries of glamour

Larger than life: four centuries of glamour

Lavish costumes and striking poses are on show at the Rijksmuseum’s exhibition of full-length portraits

Lavish costumes and striking poses are on show at the Rijksmuseum’s exhibition of full-length portraits

Florence Hallett | March 28th 2018

Owning a life-sized portrait of yourself used to be the ultimate status symbol. They were so expensive to commission that in the 15th and 16th centuries they were almost the exclusive preserve of Europe’s ruling elite, used to project power, celebrate a marriage, show off heirs or even – in the case of Henry VIII – to check out potential royal brides.

In the Low Countries in the 17th century, the increasingly well-off merchant classes, keen to emulate the practices of the nobility, began to commission their own life-size portraits. A century later in England, young aristocrats turned to Gainsborough and Reynolds to give them glamour and gravitas.

By the end of the 19th century, the demand for portraits was so strong that critics accused it of causing the slow death of English painting. “Painters of repute confine themselves to executing portraits for which they exact high prices,” said a critic in the Magazine of Art in 1892, implying that they were being distracted from producing more important paintings. Full-length portraits, which were still costly enough to be considered a luxury, provided lucrative work for society painters like John Singer Sargent.

“High Society”, an exhibition of full-length portraits at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, whisks us through four centuries of lavish costumes and striking poses. It was devised to celebrate the joint acquisition by France and Holland in 2016 of two Rembrandt portraits, which are, naturally, the stars of the show.

 

Rembrandt van Rijn, “Portrait of Marten Soolmans” (1634) and Portrait of Oopjen Coppit (1634)

Rembrandt was a prolific portraitist, and yet in his career he painted just three full-length portraits, an indication of how few people in 17th-century Europe could afford them. Marten Soolmans inherited a vast fortune from his family’s sugar business. When he got married, he commissioned Rembrandt to paint portraits of him and his wife, Oopjen Coppits, to commemorate the union of two wealthy and powerful families. The paintings would have hung in their house, indicating to guests that they were in the home of a very important couple. They are a study in ostentatious restraint, the fashionable black clothes suggesting modesty and humility in accordance with Protestant values, but embellished with richly worked detail that is as impressive and extravagant in paint as it must have been in life.

 

Jakob Seisenegger, “Emperor Charles V (with his English Water Dog)” (1532)

The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was Europe’s most powerful ruler, but his reign was dominated by war. This painting is one of the earliest examples of a full-length portrait. The gaze and pose confer a regal nonchalance, but the presence of a large hunting dog introduces an underlying sense of menace and barely supressed aggression, while his hand on the dog’s head is a gesture of dominance. The emperor’s fine clothes match the dog’s silver-grey colouring. It seems likely that Charles V was not entirely happy with Seisenegger’s portrait, as a year later Titian produced a second, improved version.

 

William Larkin, “Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset” (1613)

Richard Sackville was notoriously profligate: as well as gambling and horse racing, he was known for his outrageously expensive clothes, immortalised in this dazzling painting. Lavish clothes allowed artists to demonstrate their virtuosity. Here the heavy red curtains and patterned carpet serving as a luxurious frame for Sackville’s monochrome finery. Larkin delights in various contrasting textures, and the costume’s entire surface is covered with embellishments.

 

Hendrick Goltzius, “Johan Colterman as Hercules” (1613)

Clothing was not always considered necessary, as is evident in this portrait of Johan Colterman, who as burgomaster was one of Haarlem’s most powerful men. He is depicted here as Hercules, the Roman hero and god, after he has killed the wicked giant Cacus. The allegory of good triumphing over evil was clearly intended to reflect favourably on Colterman, who was also keen to show off his classical learning. The painting was part of a series of three which included depictions of Minerva and Mercury, but it is not clear whether these are also portraits. We can’t be certain where the painting was displayed, but it is likely that it would have occupied a public space within a private house.

 

Sir Joshua Reynolds, “Jane Fleming, later Countess Harrington” (c.1778-79)

In the 18th century it was common for aristocratic women to be painted to mark their engagement or marriage (young men had portraits done to mark other special events, like graduating from university, or setting off on the Grand Tour). Jane Fleming was a famous beauty, and is depicted here on a classically inspired loggia in front of an arcadian landscape. Her pose and flowing clothes echo those of a classical statue. Unlike Gainsborough, who delighted in painting fashionable clothes, Reynolds believed timeless style was the best way to give his subject gravitas.

 

Giovanni Boldini, “Marchesa Luisa Casati with a Greyhound” (1908)

Marchesa Luisa Casati, an Italian heiress, was a notorious hell-raiser, known for her peculiar fashion statements. She turned up to parties with a pair of cheetahs on a leash, wore live snakes as jewellery and declared her ambition to be “a living work of art”. She got as close to that as possible, becoming the subject of works by some of the most famous artists of the 20th century, including Man Ray and Jacob Epstein.

In this portrait by Giovanni Boldini, Casati’s greyhound, like its owner is thin, elegant and quivering with nervous energy. The vigorous paintwork, which at times seems to have been gouged and scraped into place, gives an impression of her forceful personality.

High Society: Four Centuries of Glamour Rijksmuseum until June 3rd